Art, Christ, and the agony of Thomas Kinkade

We earlier posted about Daniel Siedell’s contention that the late Thomas Kinkade was a “dangerous” artist because his work purposefully evades the Fall.  But in this followup piece, Siedell, drawing on Luther and Lutheran theologian Oswald Beyer, brings Christ and the freedom of the Gospel  into the picture (so to speak):

Last week I suggested that Kinkade’s quaint and nostalgic images, as pleasant as they seem to be, are dangerous, offering a comfortable world that silences the two words with which God speaks to us (law and gospel). The world isn’t so bad, faith isn’t so hard, grace therefore not so desperately sought. Following Michael Horton, Kinkade’s desire to depict a world before the Fall is Christ-less Christianity in paint.

I would like to go even further and suggest that it was Kinkade’s work that killed him. It was not a weak heart or too much alcohol that caused his sudden death at 54 on Good Friday, but the unrelenting pressure that the production and distribution of these images exerted on a man who spent thirty years trying to live up to their impossible and inhuman standard. His emotional life found no creative release in and through his studio work. As he, like each of us, experienced the ebb and flow of life, the challenges, tragedies, and the struggle with personal demons, he was forced (condemned) to produce the same, innocuously nostalgic pictures again and again, fighting on one hand to preserve a brand as the Painter of Light, while he fought to the death his own demons on the other. These seemingly gentle images came to exert a claustrophobic spiritual pressure on him that rivaled anything that Munch, Picasso, or any other modern artist has produced. It is a pressure that, as Luther observed in his commentary on Jonah, “makes the world too narrow” so narrow that “a sound of a driven leaf shall frighten them” (Lev. 26: 26)–a driven leaf or a Kinkade print. . . .

He became a prisoner of a pre-Fall fantasy world that by refusing him creative space to work through his life’s difficulties, destroyed him, over and over, to which he finally succumbed. . . .

Christ also frees our work, including our art and culture making, liberating it to glorify God and serve our neighbor, rather than means for our salvation or justification, as metaphysical transactional leverage. In captivity, “the world becomes too narrow for us.” Christ opens up the world, the world of experience, action, making. He does so because, as St. Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians, “all things were created through him and for him” and “in him all things hold together” (Col. 1: 15; 17). And that includes Kinkade’s work, even if he was unable to reconcile the creative work of his hands to his daily struggle as a Christian. In Living by Faith:  Justification and Sanctification (2003), Oswald Bayer writes,

“Justification comes when God himself enters the deadly dispute of ‘justifications,’ suffers from it, carries it out in himself. He does this through the death of his Son, which is also God’s own death. In this way God takes the dispute into himself and overcomes it on our behalf.”

Kinkade and his work engaged in a deadly dispute over justification, which he lost. But the final word on Thomas Kinkade is not his work’s. Nor is it mine. It is God’s, who offers the final Word of liberation and freedom. The next time I notice a Kinkade print in an office or a home, I will now see it next to the icon of the resurrection, reminding me that Christ is at work reconciling “all things” to himself, and second, I will give thanks that the work of my own hands, which in its own way deceives and distorts, judges and condemns me, narrowing my own world, will receive God’s final Word as well.

via The Final Word on Thomas Kinkade.

Thomas Kinkade as a nihilistic, dangerous artist

A good test-case for our discussions about what makes for Christian art.  Christian art historian Daniel Siedell (a Lutheran sympathizer) on the bad theology of the paintings of Thomas Kinkade, the popular “painter of light” who died recently:

Kinkade claimed, “I like to portray a world without the Fall.” My professional colleagues dismissed Kinkade’s work as harmlessly trite, uninteresting, nostalgic, and sentimental illustrations that provide consumers with an “art-like” experience without the rigors and demand of attending seriously to learning the tradition of serious art. . . .

But from a theological perspective, his work is not merely problematic, it is dangerous. Kinkade and his devotees have long railed against the nihilism of modern art and the contemporary art world. But because it denies the very foundation of our relationship to God in Christ, Kinkade’s work is more nihilistic than anything Picasso and Pollock could paint, or Nietzsche and Sartre could write.

Because it is an outgrowth of his (imagined) view of a world “before the Fall,” Kinkade depicts a world governed by obedience to the law. . . . But the Edenic world Kinkade projects is pretty much the fallen world without the dirtiness of the city and the inconvenience of other people, a weekend getaway in the country. All we need to do to return to Eden is get our lives in order. Kinkade’s much ballyhooed “light” merely adds atmosphere and glow, a pleasant touch to an already charming scene. And because it makes us so comfortable, it is a very dark light indeed.

Kinkade’s work is the meticulously painted smile on the Joker’s disfigured face. It refuses to deal with the fallenness, brokenness, sinfulness of the world. And more troubling, it enables his clientele to escape into an imaginary world where things can be pretty good, as long as we have our faith, our family values, and a visual imagery that re-affirms all this at the office and at home. . . .

But Kinkade’s work refuses to take us to the end of ourselves, refuses the confrontations and disruption that could open us up to grace. His images give us a world that’s really okay, a world in which all we need is home and hearth, a weekend retreat, a cozy night with the family to put us right with God. It is a world devoid of pain and suffering; devoid of any fear of insanity or suicide. As a result, it is also a world without grace, without the Word that offers it. Kinkade’s multi-million dollar empire was built on our fallen human refusal to confront our innate hopelessness and our need to do what the Ninevites did in the book of Jonah, rip our clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and beg for God’s grace. “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish” (Jonah 3: 9).

Although his visual imagery refused to acknowledge violence and desperation, Kinkade’s personal life was full of it. I can only imagine the excruciating pressure he felt to live up to these deceptively dangerous paintings, which deprived him of the grace he so desperately needed. If only Kinkade could have used his considerable artistic gifts to produce work that came out of his fear, anger, desperation, and his struggle with faith in Christ, he just might have become a painter of Light.

via The Dark Light of Thomas Kinkade.

Read it all.  Dr. Siedell’s complaint is about works that are all law, while implying that we can easily keep that law.   That encourages complacency, self-righteousness, and salvation by works.  He argues for work that destroys our complacency, while opening us up to God’s grace in Christ.  That is to say, Dr. Siedell is applying a Law/Gospel hermeneutic to art criticism!

HT:  Ben Guido


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